Tag Archives: ex-pat life

Maybe I Know More Than I Think: Reflections On 2.5 Years In Japan And Comprehension Of Culture

Back when I was preparing to graduate from college I remember looking back over my time at school and thinking, “Wait, did I learn something?” Please don’t misunderstand me: I loved my time at university. I was diligent with my studies while learning to back off and not push myself to academic perfection I sought in high school. I especially loved my general education classes, and I truly believe I learned an abundance from them. It was my major that I had a harder time with. I chose to study anthropology because I saw a judgmental nature within myself, and I wanted to lose that. I wanted to be more accepting of American culture and lose the ethnocentrism I saw within my heart. And I was successful, at least to a certain extent. I don’t know if I’ve lost all of the pride, but I know I have a lot less of it now than I did when I was 18. I know studying anthropology was a good decision for me. But when it came to explaining what it is that I learned over those 36 credit hours, that was a little bit more difficult. 
Recently I’ve been asking myself a similar question about Japanese culture. I read an article in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine that taught me about an element of this culture with which I was entirely unfamiliar. (For that article, see here). “Have I learned anything in my time here?” I wondered. 
Then came today. My seventh graders have already learned the grammar to give descriptions in first and second person. Soon they will learn how to describe a third party. My Japanese Teacher of English asked me to put together a series of flashcards with characters the students could describe. I was happy to oblige, and sat down to piece a list together. 
In some ways, I feel like I don’t know anything. The lead singer of any band in Japan could pass me on the street and I wouldn’t have a clue that I brushed by fame. I can’t describe the likes and dislikes of the most popular anime characters, and I don’t know where Dragonball is from. But the longer I looked at the list, the more I realized that it illustrates what I HAVE learned during my time here. I know the names of the bands my students like the most, even if I can’t tell you the songs or the names of the band members. I know that Mickey and Minnie are popular but Goofy and Pluto are not. I know that everyone knows Snoopy and no one knows Charlie Brown. Winnie the Pooh is popular, but Piglet is basically unknown. I know that even a preschooler knows who Santa Claus is, but no one here knows he lives at the North Pole. I can tell you the most popular soccer player from Japan’s world cup team, and I can name the most popular anime characters. I may still feel out of the loop, but I have learned enough to teach well, or at least to come up with a list of characters the students will know.  
It’s something. It isn’t everything, but it is something. 
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Tales of the Fifth Grade

Most of the time I teach at a junior high. However, once a week I teach at one of two elementary schools. Here are some tales from my interactions with the fifth grade students. 

One day I began class in the usual format:

Me: Good morning, everyone!

Them: Good morning, Hope-sensei!

Me: How are you?

Them: I’m fine, thank you. And you?

Me: I’m fine too. Thank you.

From there I go around and ask more specifics about how they are doing:

Me: Who is hot? [kids raise their hands] Say, “I’m hot.”

Them: I’m hot

Me: Who is tired? [a few hands go up] Say, “I’m tired.” 

And so forth.

As usual I asked who was sick. No one raised their hands. But three kids were wearing the surgical masks so popular on this side of the world. “Oh,” I said, “you’re just paranoid. Say, ‘I’m paranoid!'” and one obliging kid at the back swung out his arms in imitation of me and yelled, “I’m paranoid!”

In fairness, there is a good reason for a lot of them to be paranoid. People still go to work and school when they are sick, and often masks are worn as a preventative measure. I have also been told I should wear masks in the spring to help with my pollen allergies. 

A couple weeks later the kids were learning, “I like…” and “I don’t like….” A page full of nouns was available for use in these sentences. Unfortunately, most of the options fall under the “I like…” category: baseball, swimming, strawberries, dogs, cats, etc. I’ve learned that the students are most likely to repeat after me if they agree with the sentence. Therefore, while I might get some students repeating me when I say, “I don’t like spiders” I’ll be hard pressed to get a response if I say, “I don’t like dogs.”

Therefore, I had to come up with a few extra examples. Preferably ones using English words they already knew. Suddenly, I had an idea, “I don’t like tobacco!” I called out. “Tobacco” is what many Japanese call cigarettes. The 5th graders agreed with this. “I don’t like tobacco!” they crowed. Every kid in the room had said the sentence in a loud voice. Might as well keep using that one. “I don’t like tobacco!” I called out more adamantly than before, if that’s even possible. “I don’t like tobacco!” they called out in unison. I looked at the teacher. “I don’t smoke,” he said. “Neither do I” I replied. So I repeated myself again: “I don’t like tobacco!” This was rapidly turning into a PSA, and I wished we had cameras in here. PBS would be proud. “I don’t like tobacco,” the students continued to holler. But I decided we had drummed that lesson in pretty well, and we moved on.

The following week I was at the other elementary school, teaching the same lesson. I tried the same “I don’t like tobacco” sentence, and the immediate response was three girls pointing at the teacher. “Oh, I smoke,” he said. Yes, I can smell that you do. The students were willing to repeat after me, but they also kept pointing to the teacher. 

I should say here that quite a few Japanese smoke. Mostly men, but also some women. The idea that it is bad for them hasn’t been drummed into the Japanese as thoroughly as it has been drummed into Americans. It’s also still publicly allowed over here. Having lived in Chicago during the years prior to Japan, I almost forgot that people still smoked. None of my friends did, and no smoking was allowed in restaurants or within 30 feet of most buildings. Here those policies don’t exist. One restaurant in particular I’ve learned to always wear mostly dirty clothes to, for even if I sit in the non-smoking section, I will reek when I leave. 

Which brings me to another story: about a month ago some friends and I went swimming at a nearby lake. We took the train there, and on the way back I began to smell cigarette smoke.  Trains are non-smoking, so my friend suggested that someone had been smoking on the platform and at the last stop the stench had wafted in. But the smell wasn’t diminishing. I went off to investigate. As I navigated the length of the car, trying to look casual, I saw that up ahead of me four men sat with their heads together. They were whispering in a way that indicates they were talking about someone. Just before I got to them, I drew parallel to an old man sitting on a bench near the door. A lit cigarette was in his hand. I didn’t even pretend that this wasn’t exactly why I had come down here. Tilting my head, I gave him a look, shook my head, and turned around to go back to my seat. The guilty look on his face said it all. And, no, I’m not above exerting social pressure. I’m pretty sure that is what the four men were whispering about too. 

Back to the fifth graders: Later I had them go around and each say something they like, then each say something they don’t like. The likes were pretty normal: baseball, strawberries, sushi, etc.

The dislike category is where it really got creative:

“I don’t like zombies.”

“I don’t like ghosts.”

“I don’t like diets” (said a slightly pudgy kid)

“I don’t like my brother,” said a sassy girl at the back. Alright then. 

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Tales of Japan

Shut up!
Unfortunately some of the first English the students here pick up is the, um, less than savory kind. Sometimes it is all out swearing. Other times it is just stuff that isn’t entirely age
appropriate.

Case in point: a scene from a couple weeks ago.

I was teaching a class of first and second graders. Though I bring a lot of energy to the classroom and like to make the curriculum fun, I do need the kids to actually listen. Usually the kids are great, but on this particular day the second graders were talking to each other instead of listening. After a few times of asking them to calm down didn’t work, I paused. I stood there holding the flashcards, slightly smiling, just waiting. This strategy works pretty well in the honor society of Japan. It is considered shameful that I can’t teach the lesson, especially as a guest teacher (I only come once every two weeks, and I’m only scheduled to teach the first and second graders once a month). The other kids, seeing that I had paused, turned around and tried to get the noisy kids to pay attention. But, of course, they wanted to show off their English too. So this precious little first grade boy turns around and clearly says to the older students, “Shut up!” The
tone wasn’t menacing or harsh. He said it like you or I would say, “Please be quiet.” Slightly mortified, I explained to them that these words weren’t polite, and I had them all repeat, “Be
quiet, please” after me. Then, since they were quiet, I went on. But I haven’t been able to shake the sight of that precious little boy innocently using words that got me in trouble at that age.

Very, very cute!
My apartment is not too far away from a preschool, and occasionally when I walk by a passel of 2 year olds is hovering near the open door. If this is the case, I often stop to say hello and give
high fives to them. This activity occasionally draws more of the toddlers to the door. Three or four of them have taken to compliment me when I stop. “Eigo no sensei kawaii!” (The English
teacher is cute!). “Arigatou!” I reply, and give them another high five. At which point another child usually takes his or her turn to affirm me. Which I thank him or her for, and give another
high five to. After three or four rounds of this, someone usually changes to, “Eigo no sensei kakoi!” (The English teacher is cool!). That statement is then echoed by another round of charming little faces. A couple of times a teacher will walk by and whisper to them. The teachers know I speak English and view this as an opportunity for their pupils to practice. “Very, very cute!” the girl will start to chant. The chorus is taken up by others. “Very, very cute! Very very cute!” Now they are jumping up and down, thrilled to pieces at my cuteness quotient and charmed out of
their minds that they can tell me about it.

There are some rough days in this country, and the culture is not one that works hard on affirmation, so as strange as it may sound, being serenaded by a bunch of two year olds chanting my praises can really make me feel better. Encouragement: I’ll take it in any language!

The Ground Shaking: just an ordinary day…
As most everyone knows, Japan is prone to earthquakes. The country as a whole probably receives at least one per day, but they aren’t usually big enough to feel unless they are decently
strong and fairly close. That combination only occurs every two to four weeks. Yet that is still frequent enough for it to become part of the background noise of life here.

What I mean is this: yesterday I was shopping. Specifically, I was shopping for comic books (manga) as a gift for a friend. I’ve never shopped for manga before, and I was simultaneously
trying to guess which copies he might have already read as well as thinking about how much money I wanted to spend. In the middle of that we had an earthquake. It registered as 4.6 on the
Richter scale. I certainly felt it, but I also ignored it and kept thinking. A few minutes later I made a decision, paid for the purchase, and walked out of the store. As I strode away, for some reason the idea that we had just had an earthquake hit me. I was a little taken aback, not that we had had one, but that I had forgotten about it so quickly. When did the earth shaking become such a normal thing?

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